How many times have I felt that over the years at work? Certainly more than I can count. My triggers? A colleague whom I was judging to be incompetent, who I felt like had let me or the team down again. A surgeon calling to tell me that my work was not good enough. Criticism from a boss about something I had worked really hard on. Inviting a team member into my office to fire them. Getting off the phone with a patient who was screaming at me about a bill, something that I didn’t have the power to change. Pouring my heart into reaching a goal, and coming up short. Hurting a coworker’s feelings by not choosing my words skillfully enough.
I’m a big feeler. I’ve always felt things deeply. I love big and I empathize easily with the pain and struggles of people around me. In many ways, being a person like this is a source of strength. It means that when I’ve managed people, I’ve been able to pretty easily have a sense of how things were landing with them. I could pick up on the little cues that told me something was going unsaid, and create the trust and safety to draw it out into the open. I could read when my team was up for a challenge or when they were tired and kind of phoning it in. I could sense when to push someone a little to grow out of their comfort zone and when to be a cheerleader and give an affirming message to build confidence.
Unfortunately, being a sensitive person in the workplace has its drawbacks too. While I don’t think there’s anyone who is immune from getting overwhelmed at work from time to time (except the retired!), I always felt like it happened to me more easily than to others. I remember being a young manager and getting feedback in my performance review about not managing my stress well enough and being too emotional. My response to receiving this feedback was, well, emotional.
But as a perfectionist, I took the feedback seriously and vowed to do better. To be better. I remember writing a personal development plan when I was in my twenties, focused on the specific tactics I was going to use to work on regulating my emotions and working with my fear of failure. As a practice manager at a big health system at the time, my goals for that year were something like: increasing outstanding balance collection, improving proper adherence of the electronic medical record, and losing my sh*t at work less. (Worded differently of course.)
Our nervous systems have evolved to kick up our adrenaline and stress hormones in situations where we feel under threat. We go into fight, flight, freeze mode. This is a great physiological response for managing physical threats. The proverbial caveman’s response to the lion in the grass. However, most of the threats we encounter at work are threats to our self-concept. We don’t want to be seen as ineffective, as a poor communicator, as not good enough in some way. We don’t want to be taken advantage of. We want to feel respected and valued. We don’t want to fail or embarrass ourselves. Our physiological stress response isn’t adaptive for these situations. We make good decisions in the workplace when we feel calm and have access to our thinking minds, not when our limbic system hijacks the brain and we feel overwhelmed and flooded with emotion.
My own journey with learning to manage stress in the workplace led me down a path of exploring mindfulness and meditation, self-care, journaling, self-compassion, and working on assertiveness and boundaries. I read, I learned, and I practiced, and the great thing about the workplace is that there were always new things to practice with. My heroes in this journey have been Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Jack Kornfield, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Glennon Doyle. As my skills grew, my confidence grew. I was able to take on more at work and to be trusted as a steady leader. I was promoted to work with bigger and more complex teams. While still being sensitive, I grew more sure and steady in my own ability to regulate how I felt at work. I could recover faster from setbacks than I used to, and I beat myself up less for mistakes and shortcomings. I could learn to recognize more easily when I was judging others.
I don’t have this all figured out. I slip in and out of old habits. I have big feelings and sometimes I’m really overwhelmed by them, and I forget my practice. I hope this journey of growth that I’ve been on will last a lifetime, but I also want to be grateful for how far I’ve come. Perfectionism is an old friend and even when she isn’t the loudest voice in the room, she’s generally at least lingering on the sidelines. And that’s OK. I have learned how to manage my energy better, to try to not take on something really hard when I am really tired. To look at my schedule for the week and notice a day where I’ve piled up too many emotionally draining things, and to look for an opportunity to shift things if possible. To know that when things are busiest it will feel like there is not time to take care of myself, not time to pause, and to know that that is a trick. To know that those are in fact the times when it is most important to take a break. To give myself permission to pause and slow down, even if it’s just for one long breath.
This morning I recorded two short meditations. One is six minutes long, which I call “Help! I’m going to flip my sh*t at work!” and one is sixty seconds long, which I call “I’m freaking out at work and I only have one minute (literally sixty seconds)!”. If I had the opportunity to go back in time and give one small gift to the incredibly earnest and also very overwhelmed young woman who was periodically closing herself into an office to cry for five minutes, it would be these meditations. I’ve tried to distill down the wisdom and compassion that have been handed down to me from all of my mentors and teachers into these very short recordings, and offer something that I think would have helped me to calm down and soften in my moments of being overwhelmed at work.
While I wish for all of you to never feel that way yourselves, I know that some day you will. Hopefully not today. But I think it’s just part of being human. And if it’s not at work, maybe it’s as a parent, or as a spouse, or just as a person navigating this complex world. And if that happens to you, I hope you’ll pull up one of these meditations and give it a try. And if you do, consider sending me a message and letting me know if it helped you. Or if there is something else that would help you even more.
Good luck out there, friends.